The first time we visited Catalina Island was for my husband’s 25th birthday. We were excited because 25 was the magic age of being able to rent a car and golf cart. A few years later, we returned to try snorkeling–five minutes into our 2 hour rental I got big by a huge bass fish with blood dripping down my arm. I didn’t go back in the water. The girls have never been to Catalina Island and we were looking for unique daytrips to fill up our spring break and summer months. Huge thank you to the Catalina Island Company who planned out the perfect day itinerary for kids under 5–our family was able to experience these excursions for free in exchange for an honest review.
Catalina Island Fast Facts
Catalina Island is the name of the entire island, but the town itself is called the city of Avalon (this might come in handy when looking up tourism information). There is also Two Harbors which is the mountainous north side of the island. You can get to the island by taking a ferry from either Newport Beach (Catalina Flyer), Long Beach, San Pedro, or Dana Point (Catalina Express)–there are a few departure and return times throughout the day. You can choose to stay overnight or return on the same day. We decided to stick with a day trip since most hotels require a 2 night stay during peak season, and we wanted the flexibility of being able to go home to our dog without having to get a dog sitter.
When you think about Catalina Island, most people think of golf carts and buffalo. I really wanted to take the girls to see the wild buffalo that roam in the hills, but all of the tours are for kids ages 5 and up. Luckily, the golf cart self guided tours are geared for children of all ages (more on that later). We had never visited with kids before, so we were also excited to check out Mini golf, Descanso Beach, and the Undersea Expedition Voyage.
Getting there on the Catalina Express
The Catalina Express has three port locations: San Pedro, Long Beach, and Dana Point. There is a different company called the Catalina Flyer that has a port in Newport Beach. We are local to south Orange County so we decided depart from Dana Point. It was super convenient and saved us the long trip to drive to Los Angeles.
Once we arrived in Dana Point Harbor, we checked in with the Catalina Express who gave us further parking instructions. Parking is $14 a day and they will give you a pass to put in your car. Our departure time was 7:45am, and we arrived around 7:00 with ample time to spare. There are a couple of local coffee shops open right around the departure harbor which was a godsend.
We boarded the boat around 7:30. Pro tip: start lining up near the ship around 7:20 to ensure a good seat. LittleSage in particular LOVED standing outside the front door to look for whales and to feel the strong wind on her face. On the way back, we made sure to get a seat in the front cabin so she wasn’t going back and forth down the aisles. If you would rather not be by an open door, find a place in the main cabin. I would would suggest bringing a lap blanket because it can be very drafty.
Both LittleGray and I suffer from extreme motion sickness and I know that this is a common setback for many people. We took Bonine first thing in the morning which is supposed to be less drowsy than Dramamine. I also have the wristbands which help, but with a long boat trip (duration is about an hour) I didn’t want to take any chances. The medicine lasts 24 hours so one pill was enough for the entire day.
We arrived in Avalon around 9:00 and we headed straight to Mini Golf. As we walked through the town that was just waking up, I definitely got some Mediterranean vacation vibes. The colorful buildings on the hillsides and boats swaying in the water were absolutely gorgeous. The Mini Golf location was a short walk right in the center of the main artery of Avalon. Staying true to the aesthetics of the island, this was the most beautiful mini golf course I’ve ever been on. Each hole was themed to a different aspect of the island. The grounds were perfectly manicured and I found myself wanting to take photos against the gorgeous foliage.
This was the girls’ first time mini golfing so we didn’t take it too seriously. They had a great time tapping their golf balls along the course almost pool style. Luckily the other guests around us were good sports. The entire course took us about a hour to complete.
Next on our itinerary was lunch at Descanso Beach which is located on the furthermost pedestrian point past the Casino Building. This is probably the longest walk you’ll take on the island, but it was still only about a 20 minute walk. We took our stroller with us and it was an easy stroll.
The Descanso Beach Club is a serene stretch of beach that also hosts a full restaurant, cabanas, and beach chairs. This is the only place where you can have a drink in your hand with your toes in the sand. We sat at in the open air restaurant to order lunch, but the girls were able to explore freely in the sand while we waited for our food and drinks.
We started with smoothies and they even split one in two cups for the girls while they played in the sand. On the menu, they have a few historic Catalina Island dishes. I opted for the prime rib sandwich which I highly recommend! This sandwich was originally served in 1930. The girls got pizza and a cheeseburger off the kids menu and my husband had the taco trio.
A huge part of the Catalina Island culture is the marine life. The most notable are the bright orange Garibaldi fish that can also be seen from the shore. The best way to fully experience the fish is by one of the boat tours that will take you to the protected fish area. I opted for the semi-submarine Undersea Expedition instead of the Glass Bottom Boat–for the glass bottom boat, you are seated above the water and view the fish looking down through a see through floor. The submarine experience allows you an underwater view through huge portholes while sitting upright. Since we took our motion sickness medicine earlier in the day, I didn’t have to worry about anyone getting seasick.
The beginning part of the tour occurs inside the boat where you will see hundreds of thousands of fish. Helpful signs inside the sub help you identify fish, but the guide will also explain the different species. They also feed the fish so you get a really unique view of them all swarming against the glass. The second part of the tour happens on the outside upper deck of the boat where you have views of the Casino building while looking for other sea life like seals and birds. This tour departs and returns from the iconic green dock–if you’re not sure where to check in, ask anyone who looks like they know what they’re talking about. Everyone was super friendly and pointed me in the right direction even when I was talking to the wrong company.
Golf Cart Tours
You can’t go to Catalina Island and not rent a golf cart. Since cars are a rare commodity on the island, most people get around via golf cart. We’ve always rented golf carts through Catalina Island Golf Cart which is located on the edge of the main pedestrian walkway. They have 4 and 6 person golf carts and provide car seats for your little ones. When you sign up for one, you are required to give a $50 deposit in cash, and pay for the first $50 hour with either cash or credit card. If you return within one hour, you get your $50 cash deposit back. If you choose to stay out for 2 hours (trust me, you’ll probably take the full 2 hours), you don’t owe anything else. Another thing to note is that everyone who wants to drive must be 25 years or older and have a valid drivers license.
When you check out, they will give you a map that shows you the best route to take on your self guided tour. There are a ton of one way streets on the island, but they make it as tourist friendly as possible with signs leading you the right direction. Since this is completely self paced, you can pull over as many times as you want to take pictures or switch drivers. There are two main loops to the trail, both of which offer birds eye view of the Casino and water below. If you really want to stick to the one hour rental, I would skip the second loop.
If you do choose to do the second loop, it will take you down to the Descanso Beach area. You can grab a snack or a smoothie and use your golf cart to drive you there and back instead of walking. Another great stop is the Nature Center which is free and open to the public. This is located along the path to the Botanical Gardens. The girls loved learning about the different local animals through their hands on activities. They also have clean public restrooms so this is a perfect place to have a pit stop.
Lloyd’s Ice Cream
After we returned the golf cart, we were given samples of Lloyd’s hand pulled taffy from the ice cream and candy shop located a few doors down. We had been passing by this sweet shop all day smelling the fresh made waffle cones. They have a huge selection of vintage and bulk candy, coffee drinks, pastries, and hand scooped ice cream.
We had some time to kill before our boat left, so it was shopping time! There are several cute stores along the main pedestrian path. Items range from boutique clothing to novelty keychains and magnets. It was my personal mission to find the cheapest stuffed buffalo on the island and it just so happened that I found it in the first store we went into. So if your child is also wanting a stuffed buffalo, save yourself the search and head straight to Leo’s drugstore–well worth the $6.95! A lot of stores closed at 5:00, and I was bummed that I missed out on going to my favorite Del Sol store specializing in color changing items. Other popular souvenirs were gold tipped seashells (we got a few!), beach toys, and seashell shark tooth necklaces.
Below is what our personal itinerary was which worked well for our family. If I were to change one thing, I would go to Descanso Beach after the golf cart so the girls could spend the extra time playing on the beach while we relaxed on those white chairs.
- 7:45am: Depart Dana Point on the Catalina Expres
- 9:00am: Arrive in Avalon
- 9:30am: Mini Golf
- 11:00am: Lunch at Descanso Beach
- 1:00pm: Undersea Expedition (check in at 12:45)
- 2:00pm: 2 hour golf cart rental with Catalina Golf cart
- 4:00pm: afternoon snack at Lloyd’s
- 4:30-6:30: souvenir shopping and relaxing
- 6:45pm: depart Avalon (check in at 6:30pm)
Know Before You Go
Especially with a day trip, your family will be up super early to catch that boat ride over, and you’ll have spent the entire day outdoors. This can be especially draining for kids, so if you can swing to book a hotel for a multi-day vacation, I definitely recommend it. Just having a home base to go to in the middle of the day would be very helpful especially for young children. Luckily, our kids are used to life on the go and kept their spirits high throughout the entire day. I was surprised when they didn’t even fall asleep on the boat ride home!
Bathrooms. There are several public restrooms that are super clean located throughout the island. The main bathrooms are located on the green pier and are not your typical “beach side bathroom”. The restrooms by Descanso Beach are also immaculate. If you’re on the golf cart tour, I definitely recommend stopping by the Nature Center for their facilities.
What to Wear and Bring
The island itself is full of beautiful pastel buildings and pops of bright colors. The foliage is a mix of Jurassic Park lush and desert cacti. I decided to make the girls maxi dresses last minute that gave off some resort style vibes. I paired a simple chambray with vibrant pops of red and green. This contrasted nicely with the turquoise accents from the architecture on the island.
Since I knew we were going to have a pretty full itinerary (and it was going to be in the low 60s that day), I left all our beach stuff at home. If your kids are going to want to get in the water, definitely bring towels, sunscreen, and a change of clothes with you. The weather typically is 10 degrees colder on the island, and I almost didn’t bring enough warm clothes for all of us (we almost had to buy I Heart Catalina Island sweatshirts). I wish I brought a blanket to use on the boat ride and on the golf cart tour. Definitely bring at least $100 in cash. The golf cart deposit can only be paid in cash and most stores have a credit card minimum.
Is it Worth It?
Yes! Sure, the boat trip over and all the excursions are a little pricier than what we would typically spend on a Saturday activity, but I was wanting to plan a special stay-day-cation without the huge time commitment of a full fledged vacation. It definitely felt like we were in another country apart from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles and Orange County. It almost felt that Avalon was a city frozen time with its iconic colorful buildings and succulent landscaping. Everywhere I looked was an aesthetic background and I resisted the urge of having everyone pose every 15 feet for a new photo. The marine life is so special to see and sparked the girls’ love for animals. It’s a bummer that we couldn’t see the buffalo yet since LittleSage isn’t 5 yet, but that just gives us an excuse to visit next year!
Huge thank you to the Catalina Island Company, Catalina Express, Catalina Island Golf Cart, Lloyd’s, and Descanso Beach Club for sponsoring our stay. For more Los Angeles and Orange County travels, follow us on Instagram @LittleGrayThread.